What does the Journey to a Million mean for student progression and the choices they have in Wales?

Jeremy Miles MS, Welsh Minister for Education and Welsh Language examines what increased competition means for student progression in Wales.
In Wales, we have forged a distinctive approach to higher education (HE) through delivering a system which deals with up-front costs, whilst investing in our universities. Our primary focus has been to ensure that every student, regardless of background, can access higher education.

Dedicated to supporting students

Our strong commitment to all our students can be seen through the student support package that we provide, allowing students to study for their degree, knowing they are supported in the living costs, as well as for their tuition. Since 2018, following a fully independent and comprehensive review (undertaken by Professor Sir Ian Diamond), Welsh Government proudly implemented a support package focussing on making sure students, undergraduate and postgraduate, full time and part time, were fully supported throughout their learning. This has helped students to focus on their learning, knowing they had the necessary support in place for their living costs, with those students from more disadvantaged backgrounds having access to the highest levels of grants. The results of the reforms are significant, with a 79% increase in first year, full-time post-graduates from Wales since 2016/17, and a 31% increase in part-time equivalents. Alongside this, since our reforms, we have seen a percentage increase in Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) grant. 

The Journey to a Million provides opportunities for more students to experience the benefits of studying for a higher education level qualification. Welsh Government’s ambition has always been to attract more students from across the UK and the globe to come and study in Wales. Our universities are an ideal location for study, set within a country of outstanding natural beauty, they also perform well in student satisfaction surveys, including the well-established and respected National Student Survey (NSS).1   

We have seen student number trends increase over the past years and this is forecast to continue as the numbers applying to higher education via UCAS reaches a million students. The pandemic has brought its own challenges, and as we continue in the recovery from it, higher education providers and students will encounter further challenges as well as playing an important role in the country’s recovery in the years to come. Recent and future reforms to the sector will see the landscape change further, but what will be crucial will be ensuring all students are properly supported to help them all reach their potential and contribute to the wider community and economy.  


Widening participation in Wales

Widening participation is a key policy for the Welsh Government, where we have seen first year full-time students from our most deprived areas up year on year since introducing our reforms. It will be vital that as numbers grow, those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not squeezed out as the competition for places may increase. Developments such as sharing free school meal data to UCAS, will help higher education providers to inform their offers with the relevant contextual data, so that no students will be disadvantaged in the application and offer making process. 

Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations Actii informs all our policies, across all policy areas. The wellbeing of all students and all staff will need to be considered as the numbers coming into the sector increase. The necessary support will need to be in place to ensure everyone’s physical and mental health and wellbeing is well looked after.

Preparation and innovation

A key part of being able to do this, will be the need for providers to be suitably set up to cater for the increased capacity that will be required, as the number of students increase further. This may require developing the physical estate, as well as considering how best to provide the learning, helping to ensure all students are provided with the correct quality and experience throughout their learning, coming out of their courses fulfilling their potential, gaining the level of qualification that they deserve and are capable of. While the pandemic provided the opportunity to develop varied methods of learning, it is vital that each course is now delivered and provided in the most effective manner that enhances learning for all students. Alongside this, all those associated with higher education are looking at the pending HE reforms coming out of the UK Government and are keen to find out how this will affect the route and method of learning that students may look to undertake. 

All the above and related challenges will not all be able to be addressed via current ways of working and within the current resources. Innovation is a cornerstone of the higher education sector, however innovation without investment will only be able to go so far in making the changes and developments that will be needed. In the current and expected future economic climate may mean some tough decisions will need to be made, only as the coming years pass, we will be able to confirm how best the investment is provided and how best to identify where it is best targeted. 

Fostering a collaborative approach

Within a Welsh context, Welsh Government is keen to promote and develop a whole system approach, addressing the challenges in a ‘Team Wales’ way. Experience during the pandemic, showed how well all areas, within the HE sector in particular, can work together to address complex challenges that arise. This way of working together will be crucial in the years to come. One key development to help within this context can be seen in The Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act that recently received Royal assent. This will allow the setting up of a Commission looking at the whole of the post-16 education and training sector, including HE, further education (FE) and sixth forms, as well as covering research. The Welsh Government’s aspirations for the Commission is to guide the sector and providers in focusing on the success and wellbeing of learners, of all ages, across all settings and in all communities. This renews the commitment to lifelong learning and focus on wider participation and equality of opportunity, with a global outlook and a clear civic mission that drives much of the narrative for the current Welsh Government. Civic mission places the learning providers as part of the wider community and business sector, seeing the student as a citizen.

Seeing increases in those entering higher education, is just one part of their journey and how Government can support individuals in fulfilling their potential. The sector will provide increasing numbers of highly qualified and employable citizens, and it is vital the economy develops accordingly to ensure the right job opportunities are out there to help give them a successful career, where they will be able to contribute to the country’s success in the years to come.  

iOffice for Students, National Student Survey. Accessed January 24th 2022.

iiWelsh Government (June 2021), Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015: the essentials.

Jeremy Miles MS

Welsh Minister for Education and Welsh Language

Jeremy was elected to the National Assembly for Wales for the Neath constituency in May 2016 as the Labour and Co-operative party candidate. On 16 November 2017 Jeremy was appointed Counsel General and on 13 December 2018 he was appointed Counsel General and Minister for Brexit. Jeremy was appointed Minister for Education and Welsh Language on 13 May 2021.

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